Friday, 5 July 2013

Censorship Laws Do Not Protect Everyone

On June 19th, comedian Guy Earle lost his appeal of a 2011 BC Human Rights Tribunal decision. The Tribunal found that Earle discriminated against Lorna Pardy during an open mic event for amateur stand-up comics. The story of what happened is difficult to piece together, but it seems that Pardy heckled Earle and he responded by making insulting comments regarding her sexual orientation. The confrontation escalated to the point where Pardy threw a glass of water in Earle’s face. The Tribunal ordered Earle to pay Pardy $15,000 for injury to her “dignity, feelings, and self-respect”—yes, that’s something that human rights laws often protect. The Supreme Court of British Columbia upheld the Tribunal’s decision.

In contrast, in 2003, the Alberta Human Rights Commission did not protect the dignity, feelings, or self-respect of Quintin Johnson. Johnson, a Christian, had complained to the Commission regarding a song titled “Kill the Christian” by the death metal band Deicide. The lyrics included “you are the one we despise”, “I will love watching you die”, and “kill the Christian”. The Commission dismissed Johnson’s complaint on the grounds that Deicide did not have a wide enough listening audience or popular appeal, even though the band had sold nearly 500,000 albums in the U.S. alone by that time.

So why is Earle’s artistic expression discriminatory while Deicide’s is not? What makes Earle’s expression more harmful than Deicide’s?

It’s not the content of the expression. Deicide is counselling violence against Christians, while Earle only demeaned Pardy’s sexuality. Earle may have hurt Pardy’s feelings, but Deicide’s lyrics may be vociferous enough to sustain an investigation under the “hate propaganda” section of the Criminal Code.

It’s not the context of the performances. The song “Kill the Christian” can be purchased at nearly any popular music record store. It is available online via iTunes, Amazon, and from a myriad of other online music retailers. And because of the nature of recorded music, a listener can choose to hear the song over and over again. Earle’s insults were purely transient. After he uttered them, no one, including Pardy, could hear them again.

It’s not the size of the audience. Deicide regularly tours the world, including Canada, and is free to perform music that advocates killing members of the Christian faith. Yet when Earle stood on a stage and made one-time remarks about Pardy’s sexuality, she was awarded $15,000 of Earle’s money. The complaint against Deicide was dismissed because the audience was deemed too small. Yet Earle’s audience was much smaller.

Maybe it’s who the complaint was made about? Deicide’s lyrics are written by the band’s vocalist, Glen Benton. It would be an extreme understatement to say that Benton is a controversial figure in the music industry. He has been labelled an animal abuser, a misogynist, and an anti-Christian Satanist. Earle, on the other hand, is a law-abiding amateur stand-up comic who has an otherwise untarnished reputation.

To be absolutely clear, both Deicide and Earle should have won their human rights cases. Freedom of expression and the liberty to speak freely should prevail. Further, no government official should be in the business of deciding what qualifies as artistic expression or determining the value of that expression.

Even if Pardy and Johnson suffered hurt feelings, neither one should be permitted to drag the party who hurt their feelings through a human rights process. Both Pardy and Johnson should have demonstrated their maturity by walking away. Pardy could have walked out of the club that night at the first sign of trouble. If she had, there would have been no problem. Johnson could have easily avoided Deicide’s music. Had he done so, he could not have been offended.

Any clear-headed appraisal of these cases would find Deicide’s expression more harmful than Earle’s. So if it’s not the content, the context, the audience, or the person who the complaint was made about, then what?

The lesson to be learned is that human rights laws only protect certain people—the identity of the complainant matters. Because Pardy is a lesbian, her feelings are protected by the law. As a Christian, Johnson’s are not.

This piece first appeared in the Huffington Post in July 2013.

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